The latest figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that average household incomes in Afghanistan are at their lowest point in 13 years. At the end of 2017 the country’s GDP per capita was just $1,128, which is 1.7 times the lowest poverty line set by the World Bank. The figures also show the high prevalence of malnutrition: in 2016, an estimated 12.5% of children under five were stunted or underweight.
Overall, the situation is dire, and the road ahead is only going to get worse.
In an environment of political instability, low oil prices and international aid, Afghanistan is seeing a number of problems. First, there is very little confidence in the state. Businesses, particularly large and medium sized ones, are looking at moving operations to neighbouring countries. Small and medium enterprises are hard pressed for financing. International donors who provide financial support to the country can’t always be relied upon to keep the money flowing.
Second, over 40% of the population is unemployed, while 1.2 million children are out of school and over 1 million are chronically undernourished. There are concerns that this will result in future conflicts. As ever, the men who control the machinery of war dominate the criminal economy, and could even assume political power in the process. But they are not the only ones profiting – a record number of international terrorists operate in Afghanistan.
The international community, and especially the UK, must be prepared to do more. Fighting poverty in Afghanistan is key to promoting sustainable peace. Part of the answer to food insecurity is rebuilding the farms and rural economies of Afghanistan. Agricultural growth should be a key part of our new Afghan strategy – aiming to move to self-sufficiency in food production. We also need to reduce dependence on agricultural imports.
It is not enough for donors and the international community to give money. It is needed to strengthen civil institutions and demand accountability and transparency. The Afghan government should receive the same levels of aid as donor countries, and the progress should be monitored. If it fails to deliver on its promises, then there should be consequences.
The Afghan government is coming under increasing pressure to bring peace to the country, and though we are not naive enough to believe that it can be achieved in an instant, it must recognise that it is likely to fail unless it is strengthened. The UK is putting tens of millions of pounds into the diplomatic and development aid, but we need to put more of the emphasis on money spent inside Afghanistan. We cannot afford to focus on foreign aid if we are to reduce hunger in Afghanistan.
There is also a pressing need to support those who are already living on a knife edge. While we cannot allow them to become destitute and hungry, there is no time to waste.
The Wellbeing Foundation Afghanistan, the charitable arm of Lonely Planet, was set up in 2014 by a group of business people and policymakers to help those on the cusp of destitution and turn their lives around. We want to help the most vulnerable people in the country, including those children who have survived some of the most shocking and terrible social effects of war. It is about freeing them to do what they want to do with their lives.
A key aspect of our work is providing business training to those who have lost access to work because of conflict. Some 6,000 Afghans are employed by us – they train coffee growers, poultry farmers, potato farmers, fruit growers and others. They also provide support to create income-generating enterprises, from those responsible for sand and gravel drilling and rice growing to those who clean the streets in Kabul.
In 2018, we opened a free school in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, to bring education to thousands of children who have been deprived of it by conflict. Free health care, vocational training and business training all play an important role in helping this vulnerable community and in helping to rebuild Afghan agriculture.
At the end of each year, we evaluate our support and ensure it is providing the highest returns to people who have been hardest hit by conflict. If we are to help those least able to help themselves, we need to deliver better and hold our governments to account for spending our aid money well.
We need to keep pushing donors and the international community to invest more in the challenges facing Afghanistan. We need a comprehensive approach to helping Afghanistan regain control of its own future, not just for our benefit but for the Afghan people’s.